OWASP Security Culture

Goal setting and security team collaboration

Define maturity goal

The first step to building an application security program is defining a maturity goal. Use a capability maturity model to measure current security knowledge and practices, and plan for an uplift. The particular goals that are set will depend on any security framework or standard that an organisation must comply with or aspires to achieve certification in. Use the OWASP Software Assurance Maturity Model (SAMM) to define the current state of application security for an organisation, and provide guidance on improving. Once the maturity model is created the appropriate resources should be assigned to be able to meet the set goals.

Following the SAMM guide, first the relevant stakeholders are interviewed to understand the current security state of practices, with a maturity level assigned for each practice. Once the current maturity level has been determined, the next step is to define a maturity target to implement. Planning utilises a roadmap involving multiple phases that have particular targets set for each phase. The roadmap is then communicated across the organisation and to management stakeholders. As the plan is implemented, the effectiveness of the improvements is measured.

Maturity Level Graph
Figure 3-1: Maturity Level Graph

Management buyin and business process

When planning to uplift security it is important to have management buyin. Having the idea of security as a priority pushed down from the top of the organisation helps to legitimise the need for security and have it at the forefront of the minds of all organisation members. Roles representing the business, such as product owners should also have buyin. Introducing security awareness at all levels of the organisation helps work to be prioritised. Development team managers and product owners will understand security is important and allocate resources to it.

Security work should be visible and be subject to normal business processes. By having security work use the same process, providing work hour estimates and including it in the roadmap alongside other work, it will ensure that security work is not forgotten about and is assigned the appropriate resources. The amount of security work to include in a roadmap will depend on the organisation's risk appetite. A financial organisation will be risk averse and require a significant investment in security work.

It is useful to have a risk register to track outstanding security risks. These are reviewed periodically by senior management to accept or mitigate as per the organisation's risk appetite.

Security and development teams working together

It is important for the security and development teams to work together. It can often be the case that teams are compartmentalised, working in silos. Instead, what is needed is collaboration between security and development teams. The development team may want to ensure they include security in their process, but do not know where to start and would benefit from guidance from the security team. Whereas the security team wants the development team to write secure code, but they may not have time to dedicate to application security. To address this issue, there needs to be collaboration between the security and development teams, as well as security distributed across the development team.

Security teams are often seen as a blocker. Security teams want to ensure systems are protected, but there is often a tradeoff between security and convenience. Security teams may default to disallowing a developer requested functionality. Effective security teams enable, rather than block1.

It is important to keep an open communication channel between the security team and development team. This could be by having regular meetings where application security is discussed, with both teams able to contribute to the discussion. If your organisation uses an instant messaging tool to communicate, this can be an engaging, visible way to discuss security for both teams.

A security team member contributing code to a development team codebase can help build a good relationship between the two teams. This builds trust by showing the development team that the security team does have an understanding of writing code. In addition, showing how a vulnerability can be exploited in the context of an application that the developers work on can help application security seem relevant and useful. For example, a security team member may find a Cross-Site Scripting vulnerability in the developers' codebase and demonstrate an exploit. To remediate the vulnerability, they select a particular library to escape the html output that can be reused by the development team for this particular issue in future.

The security team should assign an appropriate priority rating when assigning work to a development team, rather than marking every item as urgent. Performing a risk assessment and assigning an appropriate risk rating is important. A risk rating considers the vulnerability and the impact it would have on the business. This can be calculated, for example, by using the OWASP Risk Rating Methodology. Having a risk rating helps the teams understand which items pose the most risk. When the development team understands how the risk ratings are calculated and the impact a particular vulnerability has on the business, it can be easier for the security team to have the attention of the development team in the prioritisation of the vulnerabilities remediation.

Use secure defaults and secure guard rails or paved roads as an effective way to ensure security is built into the development process2. Infrastructure used by developers should be set up in a secure manner, such that no additional work is needed to make the environment secure. Any modules that developers use should be secure by default. Rather than provide all options to the development team which may include insecure options, make available only the secure options that follow the organisation's security policy. Sample secure code or complete secure modules can be provided to developers to make it easier for them to integrate into their implementation. This makes the easy way to do something also the most secure way.

Security teams can ensure new solution architecture designs are secure by providing developers with sample solution architecture that has the required security controls in place. Security policies help guide developers in a secure design, but more beneficial is for the security team to provide a solution architecture, and ideally a sample application or code, that includes all the security controls they expect the developer to use. A developer can then simply take a sample application or solution architecture and incorporate it in a new solution, and the security team can be assured that the security controls they require will be in place.3

The speed at which security is introduced into the development team will depend on how much time is available to them and their current knowledge and interest. It is important for management to set aside the appropriate time for developers to focus on learning security, and for the security team to provide interesting relevant learning material. Improving security is a gradual process that needs maintenance and attention.

  1. Rich Smith, Agile Application Security, (USA: O'Reilly, 2017), 318. 

  2. Astha Singhal, Scaling Appsec at Netflix. 2019. https://netflixtechblog.medium.com/scaling-appsec-at-netflix-6a13d7ab6043 

  3. Anunay Bhatt, Uncomplicate Security for Developers using Reference Architectures. 2021. https://ab-lumos.medium.com/embedding-security-into-sdlc-using-reference-architectures-for-developers-29403c00fb3d